Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap (Part I)

As the century was drawing to a close, Lame Beaver had lived half of it and seen many things―and now he had been told that he would see a god.

—James A. Michener (1978)

1.0     Background

Although most citizens of Tennessee do not work as professional archaeologists or collect Native American artifacts as a hobby, it would be fair to say that a very large number of Tennesseans own a prehistoric lithic artifact that was found quite by accident, taken home, dropped into a drawer, and soon forgotten. Many of our citizens have an old King Edward, Swisher Sweets, or Roi-Tan cigar box full of assorted lithic artifacts that were found or otherwise accumulated during childhood. Some of these artifacts are referred to as arrowheads by the average citizen, but most of these items were too large to be used on the business ends of arrows. They were used as spear thrower (atlatl) dart points or knives, and professional archaeologists often refer to them as projectile points/knives or use the initialism pp/k when talking or writing about them.

Many of these fine citizens remember where they stashed their cigar box 35 years ago. If you bring up the subject of Native American artifacts in a living room conversation with one of these people, he will quickly run to his attic or garage, grab the box, and show off the artifacts inside it. He will proudly present his whole pp/k’s, broken pp/k’s, drill bits, and other assorted lithic tools―and then―just like with Lame Beaver―say that you will soon be seeing a small god. Then he will reach for the old, yellowed handkerchief in the corner of the cigar box, carefully unfold it, and say, “This’un here’s my pride and joy, the very best one in the whole box. It’s my rare flint fishhook.” If you look really amazed and interested, the owner may tell you who found it, how it was found, when it was found, and where it was found. Flint fishhooks are often accompanied by an elaborate and detailed background story.

2.0     Morphology of Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks come in various shapes and sizes, and they tend to be less than 7.62 cm in length (Figure 1). The most commonly seen ones are similar in shape and style to the dark-colored one in the bottom row (middle) of Figure 1. This is the typical J-shaped flint fishhook. The J-shaped flint fishhooks sometimes have an expanded, T-Shaped top for securely tying on a fishing line. Others have only a slightly expanded top for this purpose.  Still others have one or two top notches to hold the fishing line.  The bodies (sometimes called “shafts”) of J-shaped flint fishhooks are much wider than the bodies of our modern metal fishhooks, which leave the factory in a J shape. The pointed end of the flint fishhook is designed to sink deeply into the oral flesh of the fish, allowing a fisherman to snag and haul in his catch.

Although not shown in Figure 1, some of the small, J-shaped flint fishhooks have narrow, thin, fragile-looking bodies with an exterior spike that protrudes downward from the bottom curve of the J.  This spike is sometimes straight, or it can be curved forwards or backwards. This extra spike was presumably added to better hold a fish on the hook, but its position often looks as if it would pose a hindrance to any fish that might want to bite on the hook.   Occasionally, a person will encounter a U-shaped flint fishhook, either with or without canine-tooth barbs.

Flint Fish Hooks II

Figure 1.     An Assortment of Flint Fishhooks

3.0     Lithic Raw Materials Used to Make Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks are usually made from high-quality, easily worked flint (hence their name), which is more commonly referred to by petrologists and archaeologists as chert, a cryptocrystalline silicate stone that occurs naturally in Tennessee and many other states. This is the brittle, waxy rock from which most prehistoric lithic artifacts are made. Chert shatters easily during knapping and exhibits conchoidal (bulb-shaped) flaking scars as a result of the knapping process. Flint fishhooks are made from many different types and colors of chert raw materials.

More properly, flint fishhooks should be termed chert fishhooks, but we have retained use of the term flint fishhook throughout this series of five blog posts because it is the term used most in American history and the term that is still used in casual conversation among ordinary citizens.

4.0     Distribution of Flint Fishhooks in the United States

Flint fishhooks are commonly found in private Native American artifact collections across Tennessee and the nation, and some museums have them in their collections and on display to the public. One such museum that has 12 of them on display is the state-supported Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex, which is located in Norris State Park near Norris, Tennessee. They have the common J-shaped flint fishhooks and the fragile J-shaped fishhooks with barbs that protrude from the bottom of the curve in the J.  Flint fishhooks are almost never encountered in the Native American artifact collections obtained from professional archaeological excavations and curated by American universities, federal museums, and federal/state archaeological research facilities. Another place where flint fishhooks are almost never seen is in the collection of an avocational archaeologist or a well-educated Native American artifact collector.

5.0     Folklore and Dogma about Flint Fishhooks

Considerable folklore surrounds the flint fishhook, and as is the case with all true folklore, it is usually passed from one person to another orally rather than in writing. It arises in conversations among professional archaeologists and among average citizens who are interested in Native American artifacts. Some of this folklore has become dogmatic in nature. For example, one often hears that no flint fishhook has ever been found by a professional archaeologist on the ground surface or in an excavation square on a Native American archaeological site. Most avocational archaeologists and knowledgeable Native American artifact collectors will tell you the same thing. This is usually followed by the casual statement that “all flint fishhooks are fake artifacts.” If a person states otherwise in a conversation, it immediately raises eyebrows, and another conversant is quick to step in and correct their obvious error. Turner, Hester, and McReynolds (2011:38) have issued the strongest dogmatic statement on this subject in the recent professional archaeological literature:

One of the most common fakes is the chert fishhook…and all experts agree―there is not, and never has been, a single authentic specimen of this form. Bone and shell hooks dominated the fishing technology of American Indians.

Another aspect of this dogma is the strong belief that a flint fishhook is not thin enough and sharp enough to puncture the oral tissue of a freshwater or marine fish. This dogma goes on to say that flint fishhooks are too fragile and brittle to withstand the intense struggle of a frightened fish that has latched onto one. In support of these strong personal convictions, people point out the fact that ancient Native Americans had several more effective and efficient means of catching fish, including flexible fishhooks made from animal bone, shell fishhooks, weighted fish nets, fishing spears of various types, portable fish traps, and weir traps constructed in stream beds.

Parts II through V of this series will address: (1) the history of flint fishhooks in the United States and Western Europe; (2) the issue of whether any credible archaeological evidence for ancient Native American flint fishhooks exists; (3) the practicality of actually catching a fish with a flint fishhook; and (4) some derived conclusions about the folklore and dogma associated with flint fishhooks in the United States.

Update on March 31, 2016:  As noted earlier in this article, this is the first blog post in a series of five that I plan to write on flint fishhooks.  Part II is a history of flint fishhooks in Western Europe and the United States.  This second post is about 93 percent complete in Microsoft Word 2010.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that it runs about 25 pages long single-spaced. However, one saving grace is how fascinating and humorous this history turned out to be.  You will love it. Unfortunately, my time has been taken up by many other things lately, and I am unsure as to when I will be able to complete this series of posts. To the best of my knowledge, no one else in American archaeology has ever taken such a close look at the subject of flint fishhooks. I have learned a lot about flint fishhooks while gathering information for the remaining posts.  Just briefly, I will share some of that with you here, and I will write more about it in depth when I can return to this subject later in time.

Part II – History of Flint Fishhooks.  With the possible exception of some composite bone and chert fishhooks found in Germany in the 19th century, the 186-year history of flint fishhooks in Western Europe and the United States is almost entirely one of artifact fakery and fraud. Most of this fakery and fraud was committed by a large number of ordinary people doing flint knapping in the privacy of their homes. However, it also involved a much smaller list of not-so-ordinary, but quite colorful and productive, characters who might easily inhabit the seedier streets of London in a Charles Dickens novel.  What a bunch!!!  You’ll love hearing their stories.  I would also add that a great deal of the current sales and trade in flint fishhooks among artifact collectors and ordinary citizens is neither fakery nor fraud. It is just a matter of uninformed artifact collectors (or their surviving relatives) who own flint fishhooks they mistakenly believe are authentic prehistoric artifacts—and they trade or sell them to ordinary people who equally buy into the expansive fantasy of authentic prehistoric flint fishhooks.

Part III – One Possible Authentic Flint Fishhook.  Has any credible person in the United States ever found an authentic prehistoric flint fishhook in archaeological context on a known archaeological site?   Turner, Hester, and McReynolds (2011:38) were convinced that no such artifact had ever been found, but they might have missed this obscure story out of Iowa.

The professional archaeology community in Iowa, including the current State Archaeologist (Dr. John F. Doershuk), with whom I was directly in touch, insists that at least one such find has indeed occurred in the history of American archaeology.  That was a surface find in June 1944 (Figure 2).  It was found on the ground surface in fill that had been eroding out of a mound in the Fish School Mound Group in Allamakee County, Iowa. This artifact was found near this mound by Dale Henning, a boy about 12 years of age, who was hiking near the mound site with his adult friends Ellison Orr (one of the two founding fathers of professional archaeology in Iowa); Dr. H.P. “Doc” Field (an Iowa dentist); and Mr. Cliff Chase (Decorah Telephone Company).  Six years later in 1950, the young man who found the flint fishhook wrote an article on his find, which was published in the state-level archaeological journal The Minnesota Archaeologist (Henning 1950).

This young man later became Dr. Dale Henning (Ph.D. in anthropology), a highly respected professional archaeologist who was a co-author with Dr. James B. Griffin on at least one major archaeological report. Dr. Henning was a long-time Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nebraska and at a small college in Iowa.  Dr. Henning is still alive today, now in his mid-80s, and is widely considered to be the living dean of professional archaeology in Iowa, meaning the Iowa living equivalent of our own Dr. Charles H. Faulkner and Dr. Charles H. McNutt here in Tennessee. Despite his old age, Dr. Henning is still sharp as a hypodermic needle mentally, highly articulate, and very detailed in his writing. In 2015, Dr. Henning was gracious enough to grant me an interview by e-mail concerning the details of his flint fishhook discovery. He insists that the flint fishhook he found was an authentic find of a prehistoric artifact in secure archaeological context. When I can get around to writing about this artifact and its discovery in depth, I will include all of the new background information that Dr. Henning and Dr. Doershuk so kindly provided to me—including the unfortunate fate of this artifact while it was being curated in the Iowa state collections several decades ago—in itself a very interesting story.

Fish Mound Group

Figure 2.  Flint Fishhook from Fish School Mound Group

Part IV- Do Flint Fishhooks Really Work?  Much to my surprise, I ran into a really nice man named Terry DeWitt.  He lives in Texas.  Mr. DeWitt is a hobby flint knapper and an avid recreational fisherman. Just like  me and many of you, he had long heard the famous (but long untested) American archaeological declaration that flint fishhooks would be too big for a fish to bite on and too brittle to haul one in on without breaking.  Just out of curiosity one day, Mr DeWitt decided to knapp some typical flint fishhooks and put the famous declaration to the test out on the waters in Texas.  In American archaeology, we call this experimental archaeology.  As it turned out, according to him, he  actually caught fish (10 lbs or less) with his flint fishhooks—repeatedly.  He and I have plans to get together, as best we can one day; do some actual fishing experiments; document them on video and by photography; do some stationary, weight-load, stress-test experiments on flint fishhooks; and jointly publish the results for the American archaeological community—just to put this whole dogmatic matter to rest once and for all.

Part V – Summary and Conclusions. We get lots of visitors and views here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog.  I have been more than a little concerned and disturbed about all of the people who have shown up at the blog to read the Part I story (above) on flint fishhooks.  To tell you the truth, it kind of grieves me because I just know many of these people are ordinary citizens who own flint fishhooks, and they are salivating in hopes that this series of blog posts will somehow confirm the authenticity of their highly prized flint fishhooks as “truly rare and really-for-real artifacts made by really-for-real prehistoric American Indians.”

Well, the makers of Ivory Soap had a famous advertising slogan about their product: “It’s 99 and 44/100 percent pure.”  After looking very closely and seriously at the history of flint fishhooks, I have concluded to my own satisfaction that 99 and 44/100 percent of all flint fishhooks in the United States today are fake artifacts that were made by European or North American flint knappers of Caucasian descent sometime within the last 186 years.

Most of the flint fishhooks in current artifact collections (private, public, and some small museums) were likely faked and fraudulently sold to unwary members of the public sometime after circa 1920. With regard to the remaining 56/100 of one percent, I cautiously leave that microscopic window open just on the possibility that the flint fishhook found near the Fish School Mound Group in Iowa was indeed authentic as Iowa professional archaeologists insist to this very day. In addition, just as an extra precaution, I would also add that any such microscopic number of flint fishhooks that might be authentic prehistoric artifacts may not have been used for fishing at all. They could have been worn as pendants, or they could have served some other purpose that is unknown to professional archaeologists today.

This is where the great ordinary citizen question arises with the great Middle Tennessee colloquial lead words:

Do you mean to tell me that each one of those rare American Indian flint fishhooks in that frame on my den wall is a fake?

Answer:  Flint fishhooks are not rare at all—because huge numbers of them were faked over the past 186 years.  Huge numbers of them have been traded and sold among ordinary citizens for many decades.  It is not at all unusual to encounter a flint fishhook that is accompanied by an elaborate but phony provenience story detailing when it was found, where it was found, who found it, etc.  All of these false stories were originated specifically to facilitate fraudulent sales and trades of fake flint fishhooks.  The flint fishhooks mounted in that frame hanging on your den wall or lying in that cigar box in your attic are almost certainly fake artifacts.

Then comes the inevitable second question—desperately searching for even the tiniest ray of hope:

Well, if that flint fishhook in Iowa was an authentic prehistoric artifact, maybe one of mine is too.  What do you think about that?

 Answer:  Honestly.  If your flint fishhook were a real person, do you seriously think that out of 320,000,000 Americans, your flint fishhook is going to be the one to win the $200,000,000 Powerball Jackpot?  Give me a break!!!  You know what Harry Truman used to say: “Sometimes I just tell people the truth, and to them, it sounds like Hell.”

6.0     References

Henning, Dale 1950. Two Unusual Finds from Allamakee County, Iowa. The Minnesota Archaeologist. January.

Michener, James A. 1978. Teleplay for the television miniseries Centennial (Episode 1). Based on the 1976 historical novel Centennial and later syndicated in DVD format by Universal Studios.

Turner, Ellen Sue, Thomas R. Hester, and Richard L. McReynolds 2011. Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Photograph Credit (Figure 1) – Mootsman. Arrowheadology.com (Forum: Arrowheads and Indian Artifacts, Thread: For the Non-Believers….Flint Fish Hook), September 9, 2013.

Photograph Credit (Figure 2) – Dale Henning, The Minnesota Archaeologist, 1950.


2 thoughts on “Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap (Part I)

  1. schafersman

    What a wonderful topic! I’ve always wondered what these things really are. After reading the posts and literature online that I was able to discover using Google, it appears that some of the flint “fish hooks” are genuine artifacts but can’t be actual fish hooks because flint is not strong enough under tension to catch a fish. Genuine ancient fish hooks were made of bone or antler, a much stronger and flexible material. The authentic hook-shaped artifacts are usually said to be body jewelry, pendants, gut hooks, hide skinners, etc., but who really knows? Even more interesting is the fact that many of the flint “fish hooks” are fakes fabricated by hoaxers who merrily toss them into archaeological sites. Just visit ebay.com and search for “flint fish hooks” to see some of these for sale. And they’re not very expensive! I can’t wait to read what our intrepid archaeology blogger Tracy thinks about these things.

  2. Pingback: Flint Fishhooks: A Belated Update | Archaeology in Tennessee

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